Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Allison Pearson writes an engaging novel about a crush on a pop star.

I was not at all sure I would enjoy this novel, but something about the topic sounded intriguing. Allison Pearson took this slightly unpromising topic and created an exciting novel.

I Think I Love You

People familiar with pop music of the 1970s would recognize the title as that of a David Cassidy song. (I didn’t realize that until more than halfway though the novel.) Allison Pearson’s I Think I Love You (336 pages, Knopf, $24.95) tells the story of the crush that a teenager in Wales had on David Cassidy, singer and star of “The Partridge Family” TV show in the early 1970s.

Petra and her friend Sharon are no ordinary fans—or maybe one point of the novel is that they are exactly like all the millions of other fans—they collect memorabilia and subscribe to the David Cassidy Magazine. They know every detail of his private life, and they even wear clothes that match what is supposed to be his favorite color, brown. They build a shrine to the pop star in Sharon’s bedroom—Petra’s mother, a German, believes only in serious music, and to placate her Petra also studies the cello.

Once we have become accustomed to listening to these two girls expound about their obsession, we meet Bill. Bill is a scruffy dirty-blond bloke who has just graduated from college with a degree in English. He loves rock music and he answered an ad for a writer in a music magazine. When he finds he is working for the David Cassidy Magazine, he is not at all happy; but he needs a job and he starts writing for the fans. In fact his job is to create David Cassidy for the British readers. He makes up details of David’s personal life, and he writes letters to the fans. He creates a fictional David, as it were, so that the fans can have something to sink their teeth into.

When it turns out that David Cassidy is coming to London for a series of concerts in 1974, the magazine goes all out to get their readers involved. They run a contest—a really hard one—about the details of David’s life. We see Bill making up the questions, and then we see Petra and Sharon doing all they can to solve them. The story reaches a culmination when the girls attend the crush of a concert in a venue that is overrun by screaming teenagers. Bill attends too, and at one moment there is a chance meeting between the young music writer and these avid David Cassidy fans.

This all takes us half way through the novel. The second half takes place nearly twenty years later. Petra has been married and divorced, and she lives in London as a professional cellist working in music therapy. Bill has risen to an executive position in a company that deals in entertainment journalism of various kinds.
Through one coincidence after another—it would ruin the story to say exactly how—these characters meet up again, never sure whether they met earlier, and find their different roles in the David Cassidy phenomenon are actually quite complementary. That is not before confusion, misunderstanding, and mutual accusation, of course.

Pearson brings everything together beautifully at the end, and then she closes the novel with an Afterword which consists of her own interview with David Cassidy himself in 2004. That makes great reading too, and it is a wonderful way to bring this fascinating novel to a close.

Allison Pearson

I Think I Love You is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Jacqueline Winspear sets her mystery between the wars.

I read about this “Maisie Dobbs” novel and recognized that it was a risk to jump into the middle of series with six titles already. But I needn’t have worried. This novel is fine on its own, and I now have several more novels to read and enjoy.

The Mapping of Love and Death

Jacqueline Winspear’s The Mapping of Love and Death (338 pages, Harper Perennial, $14.99) is set in the depressed England of the early 1930s. Like much recent British fiction, however, its real interest lies in its fascination with the First World War.

The story involves a young American, of British parentage, who feels the call when war is declared and goes off to fight in Europe. Before going he had managed to purchase a tract of land in California where it was likely that there would be some oil reserves. The novel opens with a stunning scene of this young man, Michael Compton, who is himself a cartographer, surveying the scene of his purchase and taking pleasure in the soft undulations of the California landscape.

Michael dies during the war. As a cartographer, he was a valuable asset to the military. Maps of the French and Belgian landscape were hard to come by, especially since French and English maps were not drawn to the same scale, and chaps like Michael were necessary for lining up proper artillery fire. But a stray bomb, it seems, blew up the bunker where he and his crew were working.

That seems like the story anyway, when Michael’s parents bring Maisie Dobbs onto the scene. It seems that they have seen some love letters in Michael’s belongings, and they would like the private investigator to find out who she was. What Maisie discovers, however, when she looks at the coroner’s report, is that Michael seems to have been murdered, with a blow to the head, before the blast that destroyed his bunker.

So Maisie has two jobs before her, and both involve looking deeply into the life of the cartographer who lost his life in World War I. As a result, she finds herself interviewing family members and retired military men, even as she searches among nursing units for the possible identity of the mystery woman to whom Michael wrote his heart-felt missives.

Winspear does a wonderful job of creating both cultures, both the foggy and depressed London of the 1930s and the earlier wartime city with all its energy and confusion. Throughout the narrative, we also follow Maisie’s own emotional life, which is nothing if not lively; and with her occasional trips out of London in her MG, we are able to construct a quite full history and a rich set of present options.

The novel is truly engaging as a mystery, but it is also compelling as a personal story of Maisie’s burying old ghosts and finding a new direction. Because Winspear drops so many hints about Maisie’s past, it is impossible not to want to go back and fill some of those details in. I am not sure whether I will do that first of read the latest Maisie Dobbs novel which is waiting for me on the shelf.

How delightful it is to find a series like this.

Jacqueline Winspear

The Mapping of Love and Death is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Michael Robertson follows his debut with another intriguing Sherlock Holmes mystery

I said I would read the second novel in this series. To be honest, I will read however many more Michael Robertson decides to write.

The Brothers of Baker Street

The Brothers of Baker Street (274 pages, Minotaur Books, $24.99), Michael Roberston’s sequel to The Baker Street Letters, takes up where the first novel left off. Reggie is back in London trying to make a go of his law office—he is a barrister—and Nigel is off in California with the girl he met there in the earlier novel.

When Reggie is approached by a solicitor who asks him to defend a London cabbie who has been accused of killing an American couple, he is at first very hesitant. In the first place, he has sworn off criminal cases—an earlier defendant he had cleared of killing his wife went home on his release and killed his mother-in-law—and is loath to take on a crime of this sort. Secondly, his is unsure of the motive in this killing, and he doesn’t want to defend what he doesn’t understand.

When he meets the cabbie, however, he likes him, and he recognizes that the other man’s background is rather similar to his own. The cabbie insists on his innocence, and no forensic evidence has been found in his cab. The authorities claim that he had the cab cleaned to clear it of evidence, but he argues that his regular weekly cleaning was all he did. Witnesses place him at the crime scene at the very time when he claims to have been returning home to the other side of London.

Reggie decides to take the case on, and as it is going into a preliminary hearing, Reggie receives a hand-typed note that tells him a way to get his client off. He uses it—it has to do with CATV camera footage that puts his client where he says he was--and the cabbie goes free. That is all well and good, but when some time later Reggie goes to see the cabbie, he not only finds the cabbie murdered, but he finds that he is himself accused of the crime—standing over the body with a bloody knife that he found of the scene perhaps gave the police that idea.

In any case, with Reggie in over his head, Laura, his sometime girlfriend who is now engaged to a Murdoch-like news mogul, summons Nigel from California, and together they try to find ways to prove Reggie’s innocence. The bothers are very different, and Nigel’s careful attention to minute detail helps to turn the tides. But so does Laura’s ability to get her boyfriend to spring for the one million pounds bail.

When Reggie gets out of prison, he goes searching for the attorney who engaged him in the first place. While she can’t be found, he starts getting wild communications from a woman who calls herself a descendant of Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis who died in a fall in Switzerland.

With this new Moriarty hounding him, his brother outdoing him in detection, and Laura running around in limousines, Reggie has all he can do to look at himself in the mirror. But he manages to do more than that and to bring the case to an exciting conclusion.

Michael Robertson is having a lot of fun with these novels, and there is no reason why we shouldn't share in the fun. I hope he writes many more.

Michael Robertson

The Brothers of Baker Street is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Michael Robertson brings Sherlock Holmes to life again.

I always like novels that refer to Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective. In this case we are updated to the early twenty-first century, but still the tale is reminiscent of its predecessor.

The Baker Street Letters

The Baker Street Letters (277 pages, Minotaur Books, $13.99) is Michael Robertson’s debut novel concerning the brothers Reggie and Nigel Heath. When this novel opens they are both working in Reggie’s law firm. Reggie is a barrister - in England that is the type of lawyer who actually argues cases in court - and he has given his brother the not-so-glamorous job of answering mail to the firm.

That might be tedious in any situation, but in the present case it is especially so. It seems that the law firm occupies a building on the very same block of Baker Street, in London, which Doyle’s fictional hero occupied over a century ago. Never mind that Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character from the late 1800s, people still write to him and Nigel is in the position of answering those letters with a form letter that was prescribed by the official owners of the building.

There seems to be some dark past that explains why Nigel has taken this menial-seeming job. The younger brother, Nigel seems always to have been caught in Reggie’s shadow, with the result that he is almost always caught in a compromising situation when Reggie escapes and looks blameless. It seems that Reggie stole his girl, even though Nigel doesn’t see it that way, and he screwed up his career because of a connect Reggie had made. And now, when simply supposed to be mindlessly answering letters, he gets caught up in one that had been written by a young girl some twenty years before, and he goes off to Los Angeles in search of her.

Because he takes off on the very day that his lawyer’s suspension was meant to be reconsidered, Reggie is beside himself at Nigel’s absence and flies off to LA himself in hopes of finding his brother and talking him out of this crazy caper.

Well, it soon happens that both brothers are in over their heads. Dead bodies are turning up everywhere in the California haze, and either Reggie or Nigel is implicated every time. What is ingenious about the novel is the way in which it catches the brothers up in the corruption of politics and development in LA, in a plot that is reminiscent of Chinatown, for which Robert Towne wrote the screenplay, and at the same time makes them sibling rivals of a familiar kind.

Robertson is great at creating the almost world-weary mood of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and although he is only thirty-five, Reggie Heath seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. This is in part because he takes responsibility for his brother. But there is also a woman, the attractive and confusing actress Laura, who leaves Reggie wondering where she stands or whether he has any standing at all.
I am excited to read this first novel in what is already becoming a series. I am starting the second one already.

The Baker Street Letters
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.